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Crew Purposely Felled Shiites' Banner, U.S. Commander Says

He asserts troops aboard helicopter used 'poor judgment' in incident that sparked rioting.

August 29, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The top U.S. military commander in Iraq acknowledged Thursday for the first time that his forces intentionally knocked down a Shiite Muslim flag in the capital's Sadr City ghetto, an incident that triggered rioting and fueled anti-American sentiment among Iraq's majority Shiites.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said in a news conference that an American helicopter crew using "poor judgment" flew too close to the tower where the flag hung. Asked if the action was a deliberate attempt to remove the flag, he said yes.

Sanchez's acknowledgment, which he said came after an investigation, reversed earlier, emphatic denials from the military that the incident was anything but accidental. He said the soldiers would be disciplined but did not specify how.

"The poor judgment that was exercised was twofold," Sanchez said. One, the crew flew "at a proximity to the tower that was unsafe ... and the second one was in the leadership judgment that was being exercised by soldiers on that aircraft."

In the rioting that followed the Aug. 13 incident, one Iraqi teenager was killed when U.S. troops opened fire on the crowd. Some members of the crowd were also shooting, U.S. officials said at the time. Sanchez said Thursday that the investigation determined that the troops' shooting was "within the rules of engagement."

After the flag incident and rioting, clerics denounced America's "war against Islam," and what had been the neighborhood's relatively positive attitude toward the American occupation was replaced completely by anger and rejection.

A local U.S. commander issued an apology at the time, but clerics said it was insufficient to make up for the dislodging of the flag, a black banner that honors a Shiite figure revered as something akin to the messiah.

Sanchez's news conference was briefly interrupted by protesters demanding U.S. accountability for the killing of Iraqi civilians.

In it, he also said he would welcome a U.N.-sponsored multinational force in Iraq, an idea that the Bush administration is suddenly willing to consider as long as the commander is American.

But Sanchez said better intelligence, not more troops, is the key to pacifying the chaotic nation.

"Putting more soldiers on the ground isn't going to solve the problem if I don't have the intelligence to act on it," he said. "The issue is working with the Iraqi people to get them to help us. We need linkage to the Iraqi people."

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